Donald Trump has again backed away from taking action that would in all likelihood destroy the multilateral nuclear deal with Iran. In a January 12 statement issued by the White House, he said he was providing a final chance for the accord’s signatories to fix the agreement’s “terrible flaws”.
After agreeing to sign a waiver suspending heavy US sanctions on Iran for another 120 days, he added in his statement: "This is a last chance. In the absence of such an agreement [to fix the flaws], the United States will not again waive sanctions in order to stay in the Iran nuclear deal. And if at any time I judge that such an agreement is not within reach, I will withdraw from the deal immediately."
The clock is thus now ticking down on the next nuclear deal deadline before which Washington, the UK, Russia, France, China, and Germany are under pressure to negotiate accord changes with Tehran which would, for instance, make restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment—designed to thwart any attempt at making a nuclear weapon—permanent. Under a ‘sunset clause’ in the deal, they are currently set to expire in 2025.
Responding to Trump’s announcement, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said: "Trump's policy & today's announcement amount to desperate attempts to undermine a solid multilateral agreement." Tehran has previously said it will "shred" the deal if the Americans pull out.
Struggling to save face?
Trump’s position on the deal, agreed in Vienna in late 2015 and formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is a rather lonely one—not one of the other major power signatories says Iran has breached what they see as an effective and sound agreement and even the American president’s own secretary of state and defence secretary have stated that they want continued US participation in the deal. Some critics believe Trump has dug himself into a hole and is now struggling to save face. He has variously described the JCPOA signed by his predecessor Barack Obama as “the worst deal ever”, “horrible”, “laughable”, “disastrous” and as “an embarrassment to America”, but he has nevertheless now recertified the accord twice.
Trump also wants to work with European partners to draw up an agreement limiting Iran's ballistic missiles activities and he is asking the US Congress—which has rather sat on its hands since last October Trump gave senators and representatives a chance to take a hardline stance towards Iran on the JCPOA—to amend a law on US participation in the nuclear deal. Proposed changes would enable Washington to reimpose all sanctions if Iran was seen to breach certain "trigger points".
The US currently retains some sanctions against Tehran in relation to its ballistic missile activities, human rights issues and alleged roles in backing terrorism and, in tandem with Trump’s “last chance waiver” announcement, Washington officials announced the imposition of fresh sanctions against 14 Iranian individuals, including the head of Iran’s judiciary, Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli-Larijani, and entities it accuses of rights abuses, censorship and support for weapons proliferators.
Despite all the noise Trump has made over the nuclear deal issue, Tehran remains defiant that it has met all its obligations agreed during tortuous negotiations to hammer out the JCPOA and is not at all interested in renegotiating the agreement. Whether there is any room for substantial compromise remains to be seen. A big difficulty is that although the deal is only concerned with Iran’s nuclear development programme, Tehran sees both Trump and Israel as trying to leverage the nuclear agreement issue to pressure the Iranians to reduce their involvement in power struggles in the Middle East. Regional arch-rival to Iran and US ally Saudi Arabia is bothered by the geopolitical influence the Islamic Republic has gained through military victories it has helped rebels and militias achieve in Yemen, Syria and Iraq and the standing it retains in Lebanon through its alliance with Shi'a political party and militant group Hezbollah.
The huge importance of the nuclear deal to the Islamic Republic—for two years it has relieved Iran of crippling sanctions that previously shut its central bank out of the world financial system and barred its oil industry from world markets—is shown by the latest economic forecasting by the World Bank. It this week cited the hardened nuclear deal stance by the US to partly explain why it has reduced its expectation for finalised Iranian GDP growth in 2017 to 3.6% from 4.0%. If the accord entirely unravels, Iran's hopes for economic expansion in the years ahead would then take a much greater hit through impacts on trade, investment and available financing. That's a big worry for a country that has lately faced nationwide street protests largely blamed by most observers on growing economic hardship, particularly in the provinces.
"The deal is working; it is delivering on its main goal, which means keeping the Iranian nuclear programme in check and under close surveillance," EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said after meeting her Iranian, UK, French and German counterparts in Brussels on the eve of Trump's decision.
After the Brussels meeting, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson underlined how the deal is seen as successfully preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and challenged Washington to come up with a better alternative.
Referring to the JCPOA as a "considerable diplomatic accomplishment", Johnson said: "I don't think that anybody has produced a better alternative to the JCPOA as a way of preventing the Iranians from going ahead with the acquisition of a military nuclear capability. It is incumbent on those who oppose the JCPOA to come up with that better solution, because we have not seen it so far."